‘Create your own excitement’: Players ponder empty buildings

The roar of the crowd has been such a staple of major sports, such an advantage for the home team, that NFL clubs have been accused at times of artificial amplification. The Atlanta Falcons even admitted to the mischief, leading to a 2015 punishment from the league.

When the coronavirus risk wanes enough to allow the games to begin again, something besides the fans will be missing: The very essence of these events will be gone, too, at least for a while. No cheers, no boos, no chants or whistles. No one behind the backboard trying to distract a free-throw shooter. No kids seeking autographs.

Playing in empty buildings, for these well-paid performers, will require a significant recalibration.

“You know how much I love to talk to the fans, you know? To be in conversation, to throw the ball to kids,” Kansas City Royals catcher Salvador Perez said, hoping a baseball season will come to pass. “It’s going to be hard. It’s never happened before to me. If that’s going to be the best way to start playing, we have to do it, but I don’t think I’m going to feel good the first couple of games with no fans.”

One NASCAR driver called fan-less sports “weird” and he won’t be the last. Even when there is the green light to reopen the gates to the public, near or full-capacity attendance figures are not likely for some time. Temporary caps on the amount of fans who can come in are expected, with the goal of maintaining social distancing.

Michigan State athletic director Bill Beekman said national consultants have advised between 17% to 35% capacity at football stadiums for now, depending on layout. The combination of an economic downturn and skittishness about germ spread might naturally keep crowds smaller, too.

“Sure, it would still be guys competing at their highest level and their hardest, because that’s what we do,” said Minnesota Wild center Eric Staal, who won the Stanley Cup with Carolina in 2006. “But as far as comparing it to a full building in a Game 7, there’s no comparison.”

Strength and stamina. Speed and agility. Focus and determination. Experience and preparation. All that factors in to success on the field, court or rink. Adrenaline is also an ingredient, though, and athletes might have to learn how to play with a little less than they’ve been used to. LeBron James declared he had no interest in playing in front of empty seats before walking that back to being simply disappointed.

“I feel like the fans pick you up,” Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald said. “The fans are what makes the game exciting. The fans would give you that extra juice when you’re tired and fatigued. When you make that big play and you hear 80,000 fans going crazy, that pumps you up. If you don’t have that in the game, I think that just takes the fun out of it.”

The players may need to revert to those school-age days of summer when a complaint about boredom might have prompted this familiar challenge from a parent: Make your own fun.

“When I was in college, we would go and play like Purdue, and there wasn’t a lot of fans in the stadium, and our coach would say, ‘Y’all have got to bring your own juice today,’ because there’s no electricity in the crowd,” said Green Bay Packers safety Adrian Amos, who played at Penn State.

Edmonton Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse was pondering this recently in light of the widely viewed ESPN documentary, “ The Last Dance,” about Michael Jordan and the 1996-97 Chicago Bulls.

“That’s a perfect example, his mindset in a lot of those games of creating your own environment, creating your own fire,” Nurse said. “That’s a test everyone who is in this situation is going to have to go through: Having to create your own excitement. There shouldn’t be a whole lot that you need to get you going, because you are still playing for a Stanley Cup. Yes, there are no fans there, and you might be in a hub city, but there is an opportunity to win a Stanley Cup.”

The recipe for success?

“The team or the teams that get over that the quickest and buy into the format and the fact that it’s not changing and we’ve just got to get on with it,” said Winnipeg Jets right wing Blake Wheeler, anticipating the NHL’s 24-team postseason tournament that will be held behind closed doors in two yet-to-be-determined cities. The NBA is planning a 22-team format in Orlando, Florida.

For all the atmospheric change that would come to the games themselves, it’s worth noting just how much time teams spend rehearsing with nobody there to root them on.

“We practice every day in an empty grass area and pump in fake crowd noise for away games,” Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “Honestly, to go out and just play the game would kind of be refreshing, a breath of fresh air, to just let us know that we don’t have to have all the smoke and the fire. We can just play football.”

Road games would certainly become easier for Cousins and his blockers and their peers around the NFL, suddenly able to hear all the pre-snap strategy without worrying about a false start penalty. In Germany, where the Bundesliga soccer season has resumed without fans, players have been able to pick out some positives despite the letdown in energy level.

“When they are loud and they are screaming, you get pushed and you are more emotional and maybe you speak in another way with the referee,” said Bayern Munich’s Joshua Kimmich. “Now you can be more quiet and calm and speak in a normal way with the referee, and you don’t have to shout at him, and he doesn’t have to shout back.”

A little bit like the days of youth leagues.

“Maybe the focus is more on the game. It’s not like a show,” Kimmich said.

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    Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

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    TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

    The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

    “Got a great set of tools,” fellow defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “With experience, I think they’re only going to get better.”

    The signing comes as the Leafs’ blueliners been hit hard by injuries. Muzzin has been dealing with a back issue, and Timothy Liljegren recently had surgery for a hernia.

    Toronto then lost Jamie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) in Wednesday’s 3-0 preseason victory over the Montreal Canadiens, pressing forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot into defensive roles for two periods.

    Back with Wild, Fleury welcomes big workload as clear No. 1

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    ST. PAUL, Minn. — With his ever-present smile, tireless approach and long list of accomplishments in the net, Marc-Andre Fleury has always embraced a heavy workload.

    The Minnesota Wild sure haven’t shied away from leaning hard on their new – and 37-year-old – goalie. After arriving in a deadline-day trade in March and re-signing with the Wild in July, the guy everyone calls “Flower” is still fully abloom as he begins his 19th season in the NHL.

    “They say, `You play,’ I play, unless maybe I’m hurt or something,” Fleury said. “But other than that, I like playing.”

    Wild general manager Bill Guerin initially planned to bring back both Fleury and Cam Talbot, who made the All-Star team and went 13-0-3 in his last 16 regular season starts before being benched in favor of Fleury for the first-round playoff series against St. Louis. The Wild lost in six games, after Talbot got the cold start in the elimination game and gave up four goals on 26 shots.

    Guerin changed his mind, though, after signing Fleury to a two-year, $7 million contract. Realizing Talbot’s frustration from the lack of postseason action, he didn’t want to risk any tension or discontent. Talbot was traded to Ottawa for Filip Gustavsson, who will be the No. 2 goalie while top prospect Jesper Wallstedt gets more development in the AHL.

    Gustavsson has only 23 career regular-season starts, nearly 200 fewer than Talbot, so it’s a good bet that Fleury will get the majority of the games.

    “I was ready to share the load with him, but things didn’t work out and happy to be having the chance to play maybe a bit more. It’s fun to play. It’s more fun than sitting on the bench,” said Fleury, who went 28-23-5 in 56 combined starts for Chicago and Minnesota last season with a 2.90 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

    The Wild reconvened for training camp last week, beginning their quest to recapture the mojo they enjoyed last season while setting franchise records for points (113), wins (53) and goals (305). The only team that finished ahead of them in the Western Conference was Colorado, which went on to win the Stanley Cup, but they never met the Avs in the playoffs because the Blues got to them first.

    There’s a strong chemistry in place, at least, to build upon.

    “We still have a lot of guys here who were here last year. We’re just trying to make it even better, just trying to listen to everybody,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said. “We want to set a standard and a way for how hard this team’s going to work.”

    The Wild start the regular season by hosting the New York Rangers on Oct. 13.

    COMINGS AND GOINGS

    The most significant roster move of the summer amongst the skaters was the inevitable salary-cap-driven trade of second-leading scorer Kevin Fiala to Los Angeles. Fiala had a career-high 33 goals and 52 assists last season. Guerin otherwise dabbled mostly in two-way contracts in free agency for depth. Former Anaheim center Sam Steel signed with Minnesota last month, one day after defenseman Dimitry Kulikov was dealt to the Ducks.

    MORE POWER

    The Wild were done in during the playoffs by abysmal special teams. They went just 4 for 24 on the power play against the Blues, and head coach Dean Evason had the team working on that on the first day on the ice. The penalty kill that lagged last season was a focus of the second practice.

    “It has to get better, no question,” Evason said.

    BLUE LINE SHUFFLE

    Captain Jared Spurgeon has been placed with Jonas Brodin on the first pair on defense, and Jake Middleton has joined Matt Dumba on the second unit. Dumba and Brodin are close friends who’ve been paired together for several seasons.

    “Dumbs is a shooter too,” said Middleton, who re-signed for three years and $7.35 million. “It’s pretty exciting. I can get some cookies passing him the puck. That’d be a big plus. I think it’ll work well. He loves hitting guys too. He plays a gritty game as well so I think we’ll be a good combo.”

    UP FRONT

    With Jordan Greenway recovering from offseason surgeries, Tyson Jost will get the first chance to skate with Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno. The departure of Fiala has opened at least one spot for a rookie to make the team, with 2020 first-round draft pick Marco Rossi in line for it.

    ON THE SLATE

    This is the first time in eight years the Wild will play their regular-season opener at home. After three more games at Xcel Energy Center, they don’t hit the road until a five-game trip that starts Oct. 22 at Boston. The Wild have a season-long nine-game homestand from Feb. 9-21.

    Stars expect to open camp without unsigned scorer Jason Robertson

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    FRISCO, Texas — Young 40-goal scorer Jason Robertson is expected to miss the start of training camp for the Dallas Stars because the team and the restricted free agent haven’t agreed on a new contract.

    General manager Jim Nill said there’s been steady, ongoing negotiations over the last couple of weeks with Robertson and his representatives. Nill wouldn’t say what has kept the two sides from reaching a deal, adding there have been “very good discussions.”

    The Stars, with new coach Pete DeBoer, open camp Thursday in Cedar Park, Texas, at the home of their AHL team. They have three days of work there before returning to North Texas for their exhibition opener at home on Monday night. They open the regular season Oct. 13 at Nashville.

    “I think he’s disappointed he’s not at camp, we are too,” Nill said before the team departed for the Austin area. “I think it’s very important for a younger player and as you mentioned, the (new) coaching staff. … We do have some time on our side, but we wish he gets here as soon as he can.”

    Robertson had a base salary of $750,000 last season, the end of a $2.775 million, three-year contract. He still has five more years before he has the opportunity to become an unrestricted free agent.

    The left wing turned 23 soon after the end of last season, when he had 41 goals and 38 assists for 79 points in his 74 games. Robertson joined Hockey Hall of Famer Mike Modano, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin as the only 40-goal scorers since the franchise moved to Dallas in 1993.

    A second-round draft pick by the Stars in 2017, Robertson has 125 points (58 goals, 67 assists) in his 128 NHL games. He had one goal and three assists in his first postseason action last season, when Dallas lost its first-round playoff series in seven games against Calgary.

    DeBoer said he looks forward to coaching Robertson, but that the forward’s absence won’t change his plans for camp.

    “It doesn’t impact what I’m doing,” DeBoer said. “Listen, I laid awake at night with the excitement of coaching Jason Robertson, 40-plus goals, but he’s not here. So, you know, until he gets here, I can’t spend any energy on that.”

    Nill said the Stars are open to a long-term extension or a bridge contract for Robertson, who was part of the team’s top line last season with veteran Joe Pavelski and Roope Hintz. They combined for 232 points, the second-most in franchise history for a trio.

    “We’re open to anything. But other than that … I’m not going to negotiate through the media,” Nill said. “As I said, we’ve had good conversations. We’ll see where it goes.”

    Training camps open around NHL after another short offseason

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    Training camps open around the NHL after another short offseason, a third in a row squeezed by the pandemic. That doesn’t bother Colorado Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon one bit.

    For one of hockey’s best players and his teammates, it’s already time to get back on the ice and defend their Stanley Cup title, less than three months since they knocked off the back-to-back champion Tampa Bay Lightning.

    “I still feel like I just was playing,” MacKinnon said. “I took two weeks off, and then I started skating again. It’s just fun. I enjoy it, and I like the short summer. It feels like the season’s just kind of rolling over again.”

    The NHL rolls into fall coming off an entertaining playoffs and final with the chance to finally get back on a normal schedule. That means full camps for teams that got new coaches and the benefits of a regular routine.

    That means a mere 88 days between Game 6 of the final and the first-on ice practice sessions.

    “We’re kind of used to it now,” Tampa Bay goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy said after he and the Lightning lost in the final for the first time in three consecutive trips. “It’s a little harder, of course, because you don’t have that much time to rest. It’s basically a few weeks and you have to get back at it. But, yeah, I can’t complain. You want your summers to be short every year.”

    It was a little longer for Connor McDavid and the Oilers after losing to Colorado in the West final. Despite the lack of downtime, McDavid “wouldn’t trade that in for anything” and aims to make it even further since Edmonton shored up its goaltending situation by adding Jack Campbell.

    A few spins of the goalie carousel ended with the Avalanche acquiring Alexandar Georgiev from the New York Rangers and Cup winner Darcy Kuemper landing with Washington. Joining new teammates, many of whom hoisted the Cup in 2018, Kuemper is not worried about less time off.

    “It was definitely a very unique summer,” Kuemper said. “With how short it was, you start getting back into the gym and you’re kind of a little bit worried that your training’s going to be so short. But you kind of felt like you weren’t getting back into shape. You were already there.”

    NEW COACHES

    The Oilers are one of several teams settling in for training camp under a new coach. Jay Woodcroft took over as interim coach in February but has the full-time job now.

    “Looking forward to a camp with him,” McDavid said. “He did a great job coming in during the middle of the season, but it’s never easy on a coach, for sure. I’m sure there’s things that he wanted to touch on that you wasn’t able to kind of in the middle of the year, so he’ll be able to to touch on all of it this year.”

    The same goes for Bruce Boudreau in Vancouver, 11 months since being put in charge of the Canucks. Philadelphia’s John Tortorella, Boston’s Jim Montgomery, Vegas’ Bruce Cassidy, Dallas’ Peter DeBoer, Florida’s Paul Maurice, Chicago’s Luke Richardson, Detroit’s Derek Lalonde and the New York Islanders’ Lane Lambert are all starting the job fresh.

    CAMP TRYOUTS

    Roughly 40 players are attending a camp on a professional tryout agreement with the chance to earn a contract for the season. James Neal has that opportunity with the Blue Jackets, and Derek Stepan returned to Carolina to seek a job with the Hurricanes.

    The most intriguing situation involves 37-year-old center Eric Staal, who agreed to the tryout with Florida the same time brother Marc signed a one-year contract. Younger brother Jordan was with Eric and Marc on the 18th green at Pebble Beach to witness the occasion.

    “They’re both just super pumped, as was I,” said Jordan Staal, who is the captain of the Hurricanes. “Eric is excited about the opportunity and Marc, as well. Really cool. Really cool thing.”

    EARLY START

    Before the puck drops on the NHL season in North America on Oct. 11, the Nashville Predators and San Jose Sharks play twice in Prague on Oct. 7 and 8. And those are not exhibitions.

    “We still play two important games,” said Sharks forward Tomas Hertl, who is a native of Prague. “It’s not just preseason where you coming here to warm up.”

    Colorado and Columbus will also play two games in Tampere, Finland, on Nov. 4-5 as part of the NHL’s Global Series.

    And just as the league gets used to a regular schedule, work is ongoing between the league and NHL Players’ Association to stage a World Cup of Hockey in February 2024, which is popular among players even if it knocks the calendar off kilter again.

    “I think they missed out on a huge, huge portion of the international game that’s really going to be missed,” McDavid said. “We need to figure out a way to get an international tournament in as quickly as possible.”